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FACTDROP: A Capital Transforms, for Better and for Worse
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12/01/2011

A Capital Transforms, for Better and for Worse

One of many drawings in Tripoli mocking Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi with his son Seif, right, and the former intelligence chief.

Πηγή: New York Times
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS
Nov 28 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya — Tripoli is no longer the capital of a police state. But what it has become, in just a matter of weeks, can be both exhilarating and disturbing.

Hashish dealers are openly hawking their wares in the center of the city, Martyrs’ Square, known as Green Square before Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was overthrown. Drivers run red lights without giving it a thought, while political demonstrations snarl traffic. Irregular militia members who have replaced the hated Tripoli police in many neighborhoods are still showing poor discipline with their weapons, firing them accidentally or into the air all too frequently.

Tripoli is a vibrant city of nearly two million people with a bustling port, and it is graced by Roman ruins and old fortification walls built by the Ottomans and other conquerors. But while it has gone through other abrupt changes over the centuries, what is happening these days was unthinkable only weeks ago when Colonel Qaddafi tried to control even the smallest details of daily life.

Tinted windows were prohibited on cars; now, drivers everywhere are pasting dark green tinted plastic on their windows to keep out the searing sun but also as a sign of their new liberty. Fruit and vegetable vendors were restricted from selling their wares on most streets; now, throngs of them are out selling bananas and oranges beneath highway overpasses and on the sides of traffic circles, helping them feed their families but also worsening congestion.

English was largely prohibited from public signs by Colonel Qaddafi. Now, English signs have sprung up almost everywhere around town, even though few Libyans understand what they say. The signs are another expression of liberation, as well as the country’s readiness to open itself to the outer world.

“Today, Tripoli Has a New Heartbeat,” says one billboard displaying two militiamen hugging, put up by the interim municipal government. Even much of the revolutionary graffiti, which is everywhere, is in English. “Libya Free” is the most common. Some even say “Thank you, NATO” for the Western military assistance that was crucial to overthrowing the old government.

And, of course, there are numerous freshly scrawled depictions of the late dictator in a clown outfit or as a caricatured head on top of the body of one kind of beast or another.

Most Tripoli residents say that they have never been happier, but there is still some trepidation.

“People don’t understand what freedom is,” said Sara Abulher, a law student at the University of Tripoli, which was recently renamed to shed a name given to it by the Qaddafi government. “People think freedom is doing whatever you want to do, but freedom must mean that everyone also respects the needs of other people. Freedom means not crossing the line.”

Ms. Abulher said she was also disturbed that so many of her fellow female graduate students were suddenly discarding their hijabs, the traditional Muslim head covering.

Otman Abdelkhalig, a senior nurse at the Tripoli Central Hospital emergency room, said: “It’s a new country. People are happy because they can finally speak freely now.”

But Mr. Abdelkhalig said he also saw an unfortunate side to all the new freedom. Tripoli drivers have always been known for their speeding and changing lanes haphazardly, but hazardous driving has reached new heights, he said.

At least 15 victims of car accidents come in daily with broken arms, head injuries or broken ribs, three times the normal number, said Mr. Abdelkhalig, a Sudanese immigrant who has lived here 32 years. And every day, he said, a couple of people come to the emergency room with gunshot wounds. The new interim government is just beginning to form a national army and organize its national and local police forces. The Tripoli police officers dealing with traffic and common offenses once numbered around 4,000, but many of them simply left their jobs, and the former senior leadership has been fired.

Bribery was once the principal way the traffic police made their money, but those old habits seem to be changing, at least for the time being.

“It’s not the time for tickets yet,” said Sgt. Mobruk Ali, who was sitting in his patrol car at a roundabout by the port watching speeding cars go by. “First, we have to get the guns from the rebels, and then we will get down to work.”

Sergeant Ali said he was fired from the police force 20 years ago because he too often did not show up for work, dealing instead with family affairs. But he returned to the force right after Tripoli was liberated. He says it will now be respectable to be a police officer, and the interim municipal government has promised to raise salaries.

“Now, people smile when they see us,” he said.

Fortunately, the lack of normal police work does not appear to have produced a crime wave beyond the surge in vice. Some people complain of more car theft, but residents say they feel no danger walking the streets, and merchants say they do not fear robbery.

“We have religious perspective,” said Sadek Kahil, the owner of a jewelry shop in the old walled city that openly showcases ornate gold and silver bridal bracelets and necklaces apparently with no security. “People who fought for their country don’t turn around and rob stores,” he added. “We have problems, but everything is possible now that we got rid of that idiot authoritarian.”

But another kind of business is bustling in the ramshackle neighborhood of Gergarg, one of the poorest in the city, where wild cats sift through garbage on the rutted dirt streets. People are openly selling hashish and bokha, homemade liquor distilled from figs, in plastic bags in front of their houses.

Selling alcohol and drugs is illegal, and during the Qaddafi years the sellers in Gergarg did their business in secret. Now buyers drive openly through the neighborhood and sellers barely try to hide their activities.

“Libya is 100 percent different,” said one seller who would identify himself only by his first name, Ibrahim, as he showed off cases of premier Scotch, vodka, Tunisian red wine and thin bars of hashish to a visitor to his garage. “Everything is good. We are free.”


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